Karrie Jacobs


December 1, 2008

Life is a Soft Target

The atrium of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Hyatt.

The news from Mumbai was the leitmotif of my Thanksgiving Weekend. When not cooking or eating, I was obsessively scrolling through news reports on the tiny screen of my iPhone. How many dead? How many terrorists? Have they recaptured the Taj yet? What’s taking them so long?

Of the many appalling aspects of terrorism, the one that angers me most is the way that it exploits the openness that is a hallmark of urban life. Grand hotels like the Taj are not just there for those who can afford to spend the night, but are the key gathering places of great city. And spots like  Cafe Leopold, open to anyone for the price of a beer, promote the happy assumption that people of all backgrounds, origins and beliefs can and should freely mingle. Urbanity is the opposite of extremism, broad rather than narrow, inclusive rather than exclusive, and urbanity is pretty specifically the thing that’s been under siege in recent years, in Mumbai, Madrid, London, New York, and back in the 1990s, Sarajevo.

With this in mind, I read an article by Keith Bradsher in the International Herald Tribune headlined, “Attackers expose luxury hotels’ vulnerabilities.” The upshot is that all the things that make hotels appealing to their guests also make them exceptionally soft targets. The passage that jumped out at me was this:

The Oberoi and the old wing of the Taj hotel, where most of the fighting took place, both have high, central atriums. After throwing grenades and directing considerable automatic weapons fire at staff members and diners in ground-floor lobbies and restaurants, the attackers at each hotel ascended the atriums.

This allowed them to start hunting down guests while dropping grenades and shooting at commandos below who tried to engage them in combat.

Now, the atrium has been part of the language of hotel design for a long time, from the Victorian light court to the super atrium that debuted in the hotels designed by John Portman beginning in the 1960s, like San Francisco Embarcadero Hyatt (shown above) or the Westin Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles. Lately, the atrium approach has been making a comeback, reappearing in Asia, as developers have taken to topping ultra-tall mixed use buildings with luxury hotels.

I have mixed feelings about atrium hotels. I think that the San Francisco Hyatt is the rare example that’s also good architecture. (Actually, the atrium of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, shown below, is pretty stunning, as well.) Mostly I find the spaces more vertigo-inducing than spectacular. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand the architectural purpose of the hotel atrium. It’s pretty simple: all hotel rooms needs to have windows, so hotel floors, unlike office floors, can’t be very deep. Hollowing out the building by placing an atrium at the center ringed by corridors of rooms creates an ideal floorplan.

But now, if we believe the IHT, this common hotel design strategy also turns out to be convenient for terrorists. I guess it’s worth asking whether there’s any feature of daily life that can’t be turned against us by those determined to prey on civilians, turning our cities into battlefields. I don’t believe that there’s an architectural fix for the problem of terrorism. And I don’t think that I’d enjoy living in a city that was so well-hardened that it was no longer a soft target. Nonetheless, it seems clear that security checkpoints will become more commonplace at hotel entrances around the world. As will blast proof glass. I wonder whether we might we also see Kevlar netting, perhaps disguised as sculpture, strung across atriums.

Burj Al Arab, Dubai. The state-of-the-art atrium.